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Japan PM to ax ministers as fundraising scandal swirls

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters following North Korea’s missile launch on April 13, 2023.

JIJI Press | AFP | Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday announced he planned to make changes to his cabinet as he seeks to stem the fallout from a fundraising scandal that has further dented public support for his administration.

The embattled premier told a press conference he would make the changes on Thursday and said his administration had a “strong sense of crisis” to tackle political funding problems.

Kishida has indicated that Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno – who holds one of the most powerful posts in government – is among those to be removed, the head of his ruling coalition partner Natsuo Yamaguchi said earlier on Wednesday.

Kishida as recently as Tuesday said he wanted Matsuno, who coordinates policy across government on his behalf, to continue in his job. Ex-foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi is being lined up to replace Matsuno, several news outlets reported.

Four cabinet ministers and several deputy ministers are expected to go, according to media reports, as prosecutors investigate whether some lawmakers received thousands of dollars in fundraising proceeds missing from official party accounts.

But analysts say a cabinet clearout is unlikely to draw a line under a scandal that has raised serious questions about Kishida’s leadership and thrown his government into disarray. Koichi Hagiuda, a high-ranking official from his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who oversees budget proposals, has decided to resign, broadcaster NHK and Kyodo news agency reported.

Kishida is also considering shelving a planned trip to Brazil and Chile next month, the Mainichi newspaper said.

“At this stage, the most Mr. Kishida can hope for is to arrest the current decline in his personal support,” said Corey Wallace, associate professor of political science and international relations at Kanagawa University.

“Increasing it, however, will require more than cosmetic changes to personnel.”

‘Unparalleled scandal’

While the prosecutors’ probe centres on lawmakers from the ruling party’s powerful “Abe faction”, investigators are also looking into whether Kishida’s faction – which he headed until last week – is also involved, according to media reports.

The factions are alleged to have hidden hundreds of millions of yen of political funds over years in a scheme that saw some lawmakers receiving proceeds from ticket sales to party events that were kept off the books.

Political analysts say any allegations directly implicating Kishida could further knock support for his administration, which has slumped to a record low of around 23% in recent polls, the lowest since he came to office in 2021.

Support for the LDP has also fallen below 30% for the first time since 2012, when it returned to power after a blip in its near total post-war dominance of Japanese politics, an NHK survey on Tuesday showed.

Kishida does not need to call an election until October 2025 at the latest, and a fractured and weak opposition has historically struggled to make sustained inroads into the LDP’s dominance.

The LDP is due to hold leadership elections in September, but analysts say it remains to be seen how long Kishida can hold on to his post.

The main opposition party earlier on Wednesday submitted a motion of no-confidence in Kishida’s administration that was comfortably voted down in a parliament where the LDP and coalition partner Komeito have a clear majority.

“Prime Minister, aren’t you aware that the LDP and its factions caused an unparalleled scandal? Isn’t the lack of your crisis control capability catastrophic?,” Kenta Izumi, the head of the opposition, said in parliament ahead of the vote.

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